01 March 2015

Liverpool 2-1 Manchester City

Henderson 11'
Dzeko 25'
Coutinho 75'

Wow. That was really, really good.

When we've usually lauded Liverpool performances this season, the opposition's helped Liverpool out. Liverpool did well against Tottenham (twice), Southampton, Arsenal, and a few others, but they had help in each of those fixtures. Not today. City weren't at their best – looking more like a team who played 120 minutes on Thursday – but didn't play badly either. But aside from finishing – which, two jaw-dropping goals notwithstanding, should have been better, and not for the first time this season – Liverpool were at their best.

That Liverpool could do so after Thursday's match in Turkey is amazing. There were just four changes in the side: Markovic for Ibe, Henderson for Toure, Coutinho for Sturridge, and Lallana for Balotelli. And it's probably not coincidence that Henderson and Coutinho – rested for the Europa League match – were Liverpool's two best players and Liverpool's two goalscorers.

There won't be many matches where Liverpool get two goals of that quality. And there haven't been. Today was the first time that Liverpool scored twice from outside the box this season. After all, Liverpool have scored just three open play league goals from outside the box: Can's deflected effort at Chelsea, Lallana's fluke against Swansea, and Coutinho's world-beater at Southampton a week ago. That Liverpool got two in one match is finally regression to the mean, I guess. And hopefully a propitious sign.

To be fair, Liverpool should have opened the scoring before Henderson sent everyone's jaws careening off the floor, when Coutinho's delicious throughball put Lallana in, his shot too close to Hart with both Mangala and Kolarov trying to close down. That was the first sign that this was going to be a special Philippe Coutinho performance. A minute later, Lallana did have the ball in the net, but offside when receiving Sterling's cross. And just when you thought Liverpool's spell was gone, Kompany turned the ball over to Coutinho, who found Sterling, who found Henderson before City's defense could get into position, who lashed in a replica of Coutinho's belter at Southampton a week ago.

And to be fair, Manchester City should have been level less than two minutes later: Nasri's long ball over the top finding Agüero between Skrtel and Can, his shot cannoning off the inside of the far post. That was the beginning rather than the end of City's response, taking the game to Liverpool, not only monopolizing possession but disrupting Liverpool's defense when trying to play out from the back, Lovren particularly unable to find any forward teammates with his passing.

So it was little surprise when City leveled matters. Simply wonderful interplay between Silva, Agüero, and Dzeko after Toure's sharp pass found Silva just behind Henderson, Agüero cutting in from Liverpool's left before a blind pass between three Liverpool players to Dzeko, finished around Mignolet from 12 yards. Lovren had a chance to close down Agüero. As did Allen, who was on the wrong side of the striker. Can should have stepped forward when everyone else did, playing Dzeko onside. Still, you've got to credit City for such a well-worked goal.

But Liverpool regrouped, and Liverpool finished the half with the better chances. Another Lallana opportunity spurned, a smart run behind City's defense to get on the end of Can's chip, a mishit over-the-shoulder finish wide. Coutinho again winning possession in City's half, finding Lallana, finding Sterling with a sumptuous backheel, but he delayed the shot, finally sending a tame effort at Hart.

We've seen this movie before. Spurned chances, sucker punch. So you'd expect City to start the second half stronger, to take advantage of Liverpool's tired legs. And that looked like happening when Agüero headed just over from Zabeleta's cross just 30 seconds after the restart.

Turns out it was actually a different movie.

From 42% possession in the first half to 54% in the second half. Sterling redirecting Lallana's cross just wide in the 52nd minute. Another Lallana goal ruled out for offside in the 54th. City replacing Dzeko with Milner to try to shore up the midfield and reassert control, but wholly failing to do so.

And in the 75th minute, with Liverpool finally readying Sturridge to find a winner, Coutinho struck. A replica of Henderson's replica of his goal against Southampton: sustained possession before he and Sterling found space between the lines, cutting inside around Nasri before an armor-piercing bullet from the inside left-channel, pretty much the same spot as Liverpool's last two league goals.

The goal didn't change Liverpool's thinking in regards to substitutes. And while Agüero sent a shot spinning across the six-yard box in the 79th, Liverpool remained the more threatening: a goal-bound Coutinho shot from the top of the box deflected over, Sturridge's galling miss in the 87th after after another City giveaway in their defensive third. Silva and Agüero missed frightening chances in added time, but Liverpool saw out the victory surprisingly securely. Bony did nothing after replacing Fernandinho, Lampard did nothing after replacing Nasri.

Manchester City took just eight shots, their lowest total of the season. Manchester City put just one shot on-target, their second-lowest shooting accuracy of the season. Lovren frightened when in possession, as did Mignolet, but Liverpool's defense still defended excellently, absolutely aided by Henderson and Allen in midfield. And it's impossible to overrate Coutinho, the hub of everything good in attack, his performance putting the more-expensive and more highly-rated Silva and Nasri to utter shame.

Again, this was a Liverpool who played 120 difficult minutes on the other side of the continent (and lost in the most depressing way possible) less than 72 hours before. It wasn't perfect – the passing from the back and in the final third could be better, the finishing still needs to be better – but it was very, very impressive, and far beyond what I thought possible.

So now, Liverpool sit fifth, level on points with Arsenal (who are currently leading Everton, and would move into third), two points behind United. Liverpool have gotten through the difficult Everton, Tottenham, Southampton, City stretch with 10 points from 12, a total that the most optimistic supporter would hesitate to predict. Liverpool are now unbeaten in the league in 11 matches.

Liverpool have 11 games to bring this unlikely charge into the Champions League places to fruition.


Stephen said...

Great recap as always Nate. Gotta emphasize Allen's contributions. Vital to winning the middle of the pitch and starting or sustaining attacks. Very high energy ... on many loose balls despite playing 120 on Thursday. Very composed on the ball and in recycling possession. The MOTM rightfully goes to Phil and Hendo had a great match but Joe was fantastic today.

Anonymous said...

After the Bolton game, I made this comment:

I'd be a bit unhappy with 6 pts; I expect 7/8/9 points and dream of all 12!

Well the 10 points from 12 is a massive achievement and builds great momentum in the run in.

The Burnley game is now even more important especially considering the fixtures for the other teams around us.